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Reading Derrida and Ricoeur: Improbable Encounters Between Deconstruction and Hermeneutics

Reading Derrida and Ricoeur: Improbable Encounters Between Deconstruction and Hermeneutics


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Published by Iskandar
Any account of the contentious relation between Paul Ricoeur and Jacques
Derrida cannot fail to be marked, initially at least, by a feeling of melan-
choly and a certain mournfulness. Not only because the two thinkers, having
recently passed away within only a few months of each other, will not have
the opportunity to contribute to or revisit the various debates in which they
jointly participated for approximately fifty years. But also because, even when
they were alive, most of their public encounters could be described, at best,
as missed opportunities of a fruitful dialogue. Hence a sense of sorrowfulness
with respect to the distance separating deconstruction and hermeneutics, those
two most influential streams of contemporary European thought.
Any account of the contentious relation between Paul Ricoeur and Jacques
Derrida cannot fail to be marked, initially at least, by a feeling of melan-
choly and a certain mournfulness. Not only because the two thinkers, having
recently passed away within only a few months of each other, will not have
the opportunity to contribute to or revisit the various debates in which they
jointly participated for approximately fifty years. But also because, even when
they were alive, most of their public encounters could be described, at best,
as missed opportunities of a fruitful dialogue. Hence a sense of sorrowfulness
with respect to the distance separating deconstruction and hermeneutics, those
two most influential streams of contemporary European thought.

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After the exposition of several of Ricoeur’s reflections on selfhood, I would
like to assess his aforementioned claim that the main virtue of his dialectics
is that it keeps the ego from occupying the place of foundation, insofar as it
points toward a self that is neither exalted, as in the philosophies of the cogito,
nor humiliated, as in the philosophies of the anti-cogito. I will evaluate this
claim by considering the following crucial question, to which admittedly there
is no straightforward answer: Does Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of the self succeed
in keeping sufficient distance from the philosophies of the cogito, which he
purports to amend by allowing for various types of non-presence at the core
of subjectivity?

Ricoeur’s project appears to be successful, considering that he has man-
aged to resist the self-founding certainty of the Cartesian cogito. I have pointed
out, on many occasions, his intention to dissociate himself from the belief in
the ability of the conscious subject to constitute all reality, as this belief is epito-
mized, for Ricoeur, in Husserl’s work. His response to the supposed solipsism
of the Husserlian ego-cogito is a polysemic self that, ineluctably mediated and
inscribed by difference, has given up the illusion of immediate consciousness,
certainty, and pure identity. I will quickly recall four of the instances bearing
witness to the polysemic nature of selfhood.
Firstly, in his early essay on subjectivity, Ricoeur expresses his uneasi-
ness, from a linguistic perspective, about the privilege phenomenology confers
upon a self-constituting consciousness. As far as structuralism is concerned, the
emergence of a singular subject capable of saying “I” depends on a preexistent
linguistic code that functions as a quasi-unconscious category presupposed by
speech. Inasmuch as Ricoeur takes into account this category as the sine qua
non of the speaking subject, he resists Husserl’s conviction about the subject’s
anteriority in relation to discourse. Therefore, far from interpreting the speak-
ing self as a principle or an origin, he allows for an original non-presence that
gives rise to a mediated subject and that exposes the illusion of self-sufficiency
and immediacy.

Secondly, the self’s identity is interrupted by the introduction of temporal-
ity into the sphere of sameness. Not only does Ricoeur differentiate idem from
ipse but also contrasts the immutability of the former to the self-constancy of the
latter. Although there is a dialectical link between the two types of identity, one
has to recognize that the self-constancy of ipse-identity successfully incorporates
a certain degree of dynamism and change, on which basis it cannot be reduced
to the self-identity and permanence of an immobile subject.
Thirdly, as soon as the transition is being made from description and
narration to ethics, the motif of benevolent spontaneity calls for another type


Reading Derrida and Ricoeur

of passivity: finitude and vulnerability. Clearly, Ricoeur’s discussion of ethical
action, responsibility, and initiative does not subscribe to the voluntarism and
omnipotence of an unmediated ego. On the contrary, he stresses the plight
of the suffering other, whose call gives rise to benevolence and a symmetry
between self and other in light of their shared mortality. It is, therefore, recog-
nized that the act of the ethical self is limited by finitude, as a result of which
benevolence and power can never reach an absolute degree. Nevertheless, the
act of the finite self is teleologically construed as always taking place within a
horizon regulated by the Kantian Idea of the good life with and for others in
just institutions, for it is this Idea alone that can ensure the dialectical continu-
ity between passivity and activity.
Fourthly, Ricoeur underlines the primordiality of the self-other dialectic
not merely on the ethical level but on that of gnoseology too. Accordingly,
with a view to making intersubjectivity the foundation of selfhood, he discerns
in Husserl’s distinction between flesh and body a more original intertwining
of the self with the other. The problem with Husserl’s distinction is that the
status of the foreign is derived from the sphere of ownness and that everything
is believed to originate in the ownness of my flesh. Even the constitution of
objective nature and reality is claimed to take place in and through conscious-
ness, a constitution of a piece with the philosophies of the cogito: in Husserl,
he notes, “we are in a self-proclaimed egology and not in a philosophy of the
self” (OA, 323). In response to this reduction of otherness, Ricoeur argues
that the other’s alterity, far from relating après coup to the otherness of the
flesh that I am, must be held to be prior to the constitution of the self: “My
flesh appears as a body among bodies only to the extent that I am myself an
other among all the others, in the apprehension of a common nature, woven,
as Husserl says, out of the network of intersubjectivity—itself, unlike Husserl’s
conception, founding selfhood in its own way” (OA, 326). Although Ricoeur
endorses the belief in the primordiality of the flesh serving as the ground for
all human activity,62

he reproaches Husserl for making the leibhaft selbst the
constituting origin of intersubjectivity and objective nature, and for thinking
only of the other than me as another me, and never of the self as another.
Due to his inability to regard intersubjectivity as prior to the constitution of
the self, Husserl, for Ricoeur, can neither understand nor adequately explain
how my flesh is also a body.
In this light, Ricoeur underlines the dialectical mediation of selfhood by
various types of otherness. Thus, priority is granted to the relational character
of selfhood as opposed to an immediate and self-positing subjectivity. What
Ricoeur affirms about the anteriority of unconscious impulses can be applied
mutatis mutandis to the originary non-presence that makes possible the speaker,
the narrative self, and the acting self of the ethical domain: the ontic plane is
always anterior to reflection, speech, awareness, volition and action. The I am is


Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of the Self

prior to the I think, so the self is simultaneously the certainty and affirmation
that I am” and the open question or suspicion as to “what I am” (QS, 244 and
265). By allowing for alterity and passivity at the core of selfhood, Ricoeur has
successfully incorporated some of the insights of a Nietszchean, Freudian, and
structuralist critique, thereby avoiding an idealistic conception of subjectivity.
Commenting on this radical aspect of his philosophy, Kathleen Blamey remarks
that, “from what was assumed to be best known, consciousness has become an
enigma, a problem for reflection,” and wonders: “Having passed through the
rigors of dispossession—which, as we recall, Ricoeur describes in terms of the
wounded, humiliated cogito—what is left of the ambition of reflection, of the
desire for self-understanding?”63
And yet, it is one thing to acknowledge this affirmation of a necessary
moment of distance and dispossession, it is quite another to claim, as Madison
does, that “Ricoeur’s contribution is, in effect, to have ‘desubjectivized’ subjectiv-
ity,” and to insist on the “deconstructive” and “antimetaphysical” character of
such a gesture.64

On account of Ricoeur’s dialectics, what needs to be cautiously
established is that what he is casting doubt on is not subjectivity as such but
the positing of the subject at the very beginning of intersubjectivity and even
reality. Ricoeur’s reservations vis-à-vis the philosophies of the cogito is not so
much that they draw upon a metaphysical concept of subjectivity as that they
interpret subjectivity as a pure and absolute principle, as a self-sufficient value
that can be the source of all knowledge. Hence his reluctance to accept the
terms “post-” and “antimetaphysical” that Madison attributes to his thought.65
By conceiving of selfhood as a polysemic function dialectically articulated with
alterity, Ricoeur seeks neither to eliminate subjectivity nor to do away with the
phenomenological belief in origin or arche¯. Rather, he wants to problematize
the purity of this arche¯ and to relate it to a teleology, according to which
the self is a task or a cultural aim yet to be achieved. The task of reflective
philosophy is to resolve the conflict between archaeology and teleology in a
fruitful synthesis.

Blamey metaphorically portrays this transition from a largely Cartesian
ego to a hermeneutic reading of the self in terms of an itinerary or a journey.
Blamey explains that this journey does not refer to a program of conceptual
development in Ricoeur’s own thinking over the years but to the transforma-
tion that this thinking has brought about.66

If selfhood is the end-station or
terminus, Ricoeur’s contribution is to have argued in favor of the anterior
phase of disarticulation. The latter, which is always thought of as a necessary
but provisional negativity, has taken various forms such as the unconscious, the
generality of the linguistic code, temporal change, human finitude, the passivity
of the flesh, and the other’s alterity. Similarly, the self qua terminus appears in
several hierarchized guises such as the speaking agent, narrative identity, and
the ethical self. It is clear that the coupling of those two stages is marked by a


Reading Derrida and Ricoeur

directionality from a dispossessed self toward a reappropriated one, where the
former is teleologically determined as always in view of the latter.
What guarantees the transition to a positively defined selfhood is the
fact that this process is believed to take place within a horizon opened up
by the infinite idea of the good life. The directionality from disarticulation
toward reappropriation presupposes a limiting idea regulating ethical behaviour.
Because the Idea constitutes an infinite aim never to be actually attained, it has
to prescribe the concrete task of ethical selfhood for fear of remaining alien
to present experience and effective history. In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur
thematizes the prescriptive character of the Idea, which, despite consisting in
a nebulous transcendental function, becomes regulative by setting tasks and
demanding strategic action.67

One of the essential features of this conceptual
set-up is that it endorses an infinite asymptotic progress toward something that
remains, by definition, out of our reach. Another one is the acknowledgment
of the limitations that finitude imposes upon human action, which is thereby
determined in opposition to the infinity of the Idea.
As Ricoeur underlines in the early discussion of the Idea in “What Does
Humanism Mean?,” the pretensions of absolute knowledge are shattered by the
realization of mortality: “Man is man when he knows that he is only man. The
ancients called man a ‘mortal.’ This ‘remembrance of death’ indicated in the
very name of man introduces the reference to a limit at the very heart of the
affirmation of man himself.”68

It will also be recalled that in the “Conclusion”
to Time and Narrative, the third aporia of temporality—the inscrutability of
time—points precisely to the failure of human thought to master time. Here
Ricoeur alludes to the Proustian characterization of time as “the artist,” vis-à-vis
which one finds oneself buffeted back and forth between resignation and the
grief arising from the contrast between human fragility and the destructive
power of time.69

If, in Time and Narrative, the background against which the
inevitability of mortality emerges is an invincible time, in Oneself as Another
infinity appears under the guise of an ethical aim that remains unrealized but
also unrealizable.

Accordingly, the dialectic between selfhood and otherness, marked by
finitude and consisting in an incomplete mediation, takes place within a horizon
regulated by the infinite idea of the good life that serves as the ultimate guide
providing human action with meaning and direction. By virtue of this essentially
limited mediation, Ricoeur admits that the teleological process he is describing
is a fragile one and that risk is always a factor that has to be reckoned with.
This risk, however, is always linked to the realm of finite and empirical action,
whereas the infinite idea is coupled to rational thinking and ideal universality.
I have already referred to the extent to which this teleological process and the
corollary dialectic between selfhood and alterity constitute operations fraught


Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of the Self

with difficulties. I will return to these difficulties in more detail in chapter 4.
However, one point needs to be emphasized in this context.
Ricoeur’s approach is complicated by the following uneasy relationship.
On the one hand, during the descriptive stage of his analysis, he insists on the
preeminence of the singularity of the speaking subject as opposed to the virtual
generality of langue. Similarly, when the discussion moves on to the domain
of ethics, he valorizes the singularly responsible self who decides and declares
“Here I stand!,” who takes a stance and puts an end to the wandering that
results from the self’s confrontation with a multitude of models for action. The
phrase “Here I stand!” allegorically represents the ethical self’s singular deci-
sion to designate himself or herself as the subject of imputation and to assume
responsibility before the other who is counting on him or her.
On the other hand, the same self is simultaneously inscribed within the
horizon of a general ethics, according to which one’s ethical intention ought to
be the idea of the good life with and for others in just institutions. Ricoeur’s
account of the ethical aim requires that we pursue the good life not as monads
but collectively, hence the generality of the injunction. In addition, the eighth
study of Oneself as Another, devoted to the moral law, examines the necessary
link between the ethical intention and the universality of moral obligation.
Ricoeur reiterates here even more forcefully the requirement that the teleological
conception of ethics should assume a certain generality and submit itself to a
deontological principle, which alone can keep inscrutable evil at bay: “Because
there is evil, the aim of the ‘good life’ has to be submitted to the test of moral
obligation” (OA, 218).

Does the generality entailed by the ethical intention and the recourse to
the concept of “duty” not compromise the singularity of an individual who
declares “Here I stand!”? One of the paradoxes of Ricoeur’s reflection on self-
hood is this tension between his portrayal of the self in terms of singular respon-
sibility and the more or less explicit valorization of universally applicable ethical
ideals and laws. While acknowledging his carefully constructed arguments and
valuable insights into the structure of selfhood, one has to point out that his
prescriptive demands detract from a rigorously conceived singular responsibility,
and that, in consequence, the ensuing self cannot lay claim to a genuinely ethi-
cal behavior. One is faced here with the following aporia: whereas the Idea of
the good life, which should regulate the horizon of our actions and decisions,
is intended to exclude indifference and hostility by prescribing benevolence, at
the same time, it deprives the self of any singularly assumed responsibility.
A similar argument can be made with respect to the selfhood-otherness
dialectic, which, by pointing toward an internal relation between these two
terms, reduces alterity to a provisional necessity. It is, however, one thing to say
that Ricoeur downplays the radical character of alterity and quite another to


Reading Derrida and Ricoeur

argue that he collapses the other into the identity of the same. Venema appears
to be a little too harsh when he concludes that

perhaps Ricoeur’s ontological reflections should be seen as an ontol-
ogy of identity rather than of selfhood. How does Ricoeur distin-
guish the being of selfhood from that of sameness? On the basis
of the correlation between the question “who?” and the questions
“what?” and “why?” And how does Ricoeur distinguish the mean-
of selfhood from that of sameness? On the basis of universal
and individual descriptions of identity that collapse selfhood or ipse
identity (Who?) into sameness or idem identity (What?).70

There is no need to repeat here the various ways in which Ricoeur displaces
the authority of the subject. The hermeneutic self is a polysemic value whose
stability and identity is always mediated, and therefore limited, by the alter-
ity of other people and also by other forms of passivity. Moreover, insofar as
dialectics presupposes and requires difference, one cannot convincingly argue
that Ricoeur prioritizes identity at the complete expense of alterity, but has to
credit him with allowing for some otherness at the heart of ownness and with
admitting to a disappropriated ego that cannot function as the foundation of
intersubjectivity and reality.
If Ricoeur’s dialectics does not seek to exclude alterity altogether, it envis-
ages a state of reconciliation where otherness will be sublated by ethical self-
hood. The latter is then determined not as an absolute and independent arche¯
but as a task necessarily mediated by alterity and grounded in the infinite idea
of the good life. Although passivity and the otherness of other people are not
negated, they are nonetheless placed under the service of selfhood, with which
they purportedly communicate in relations of mutuality, similitude, friendship,
and symmetrical exchange. The other may be different from me, still, he or she
must also be essentially homogeneous to me.71

By promoting such a dialectical
tie, Ricoeur’s reflection underestimates the possibility of radical alterity, which is
conveniently interpreted as just stimulating the already ethically inclined solici-
tude or benevolence of the self.72
A final problem that one encounters here arises from the fact that what
ensures the dialectical transition from otherness to selfhood is its teleological
construal on the basis of an infinite aim never to be actually realized. In other
words, the continuous transition within the dialectic is guaranteed by a certain
continuity between the dialectic and the Idea of the good life. Paradoxically,
it turns out that the very infinity of the Idea requires that the progress toward
this ultimate aim be interrupted. On the one hand, the smooth transition from
a disarticulated to a reappropriated self is possible within a unified horizon of
sense opened up by a limit idea. On the other hand, if this idea is to remain


Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics of the Self

infinite and out of reach, the same horizon has to be discontinued and the
supposedly safe and progressive movement from alterity to selfhood has to be
interrupted for reasons that are essential rather than contingent. This is the
ultimate aporia inherent in Ricoeur’s endeavor to produce a philosophy that
would constitute a return to Kant via Hegel.

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Chapter 4

Secret Singularities

The thematic organization of this chapter reflects my discussion of Ricoeur’s
writings, on the one hand, on the interdependence between singular selfhood,
speech, and responsibility, and, on the other, on the ethical relation itself. In
the first two sections, I will explore how Derrida’s account of signification
and, more specifically, of the personal pronoun goes beyond a dialectics of
semiotics and semantics, langue and parole. One of my major concerns here
is the link between generality and singularity, compromised responsibility and
absolute responsibility. Derrida’s thinking provides the resources for grasping
together the demand, here and now, for a rigorously conceived singularity
and the requirement that such a demand be always articulated with a certain
exemplarity. As a result, singular speech will be shown to be grounded in an
originary secrecy, in a principial possibility of perjury which, far from being a
negative, provisional, or empirical eventuality, constitutes the positive condition
of truthful speech and a genuinely responsible self. Although this commingling
of truthfulness and perjury, or singularity and generalizability, is far removed
from Ricoeur’s manifest declarations, I will point to specific moments in his
texts that bring him closer to deconstruction when he appears to be getting
farther away from it.

The last three sections will concentrate on the relation between self and
other, as this is approached in Derrida’s early reading of Lévinas but also in
more recent writings. I will explore the reasons why Derrida sides with Lévinas,
against Ricoeur, in affirming the exigency of the absolutely other, while simul-
taneously underlining with Ricoeur, against Lévinas, some ineluctable contact
between self and other. Derrida maintains both the impossibility of the other
appearing as such and the possibility of a minimal phenomenalizability, and
insists, unlike Ricoeur, on the non-teleological, non-dialectical character of this
configuration. The advantage of this structure is that, by introducing a new
thinking about the border or the limit, it allows, inasmuch as it resists dialectics,
for the possibility of a singular self and an other worthy of its name, although it
also expropriates the effects of presence to which it gives rise.1

Throughout this
chapter, I will seek to explicate Derrida’s peculiar “less is more” logic, according



Reading Derrida and Ricoeur

to which the chance of the better depends on the irreducible possibility of the
worst, and which, moreover, upsets the teleological organization of impossibility
and possibility, the finite and the infinite.

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